In Search of My Whole Self
By Rae Lewis-Thornton
July 12, 2012
This piece originally appeared in Rae's blog, Diva Living With AIDS.
I remember the day I learned that I had HIV, the first thing I thought about was the guy I was dating. I knew he wasn't infected with HIV because we had used condoms 100 percent of the time. But Lawdddd ever present in my mind was the question of my worth. Would he still want me?
Let me be honest: I've said it over and again, my self-esteem was very low at 23 and my worth was between my legs. As a girl I was taught that sex was love. The men in my family started touching me when I was 6 years old.
Touching was what I knew how to do. By the time I was 19 years old I believed that if I sucked a man's dick until he plead for mercy, he would love me forever. A relationship couldn't be deep if we didn't have sex. Like For Real, what was a relationship without doing that thang? I was all jacked up, and I didn't even understand that I was.
It didn't matter that I was picky and choosey and didn't have one night stands, because the men that I did date, sex was a major part of what we did. Whether it's in a relationship or a hook-up you are still giving a part of you to them. Stop kidding yourself; Sex is sex is sex is sex is sex!
I say it in my latest book, The Politics of Respectability, that a fuck is a fuck is a fuck and the only difference is how we spin it to make ourselves feel good about what we are doing. This is more true for women than men. A woman and a man can have equal sexual partners and the woman is seen as a whore and the man as mack daddy with a tight game. So we women spin sex in a way to make people think good of us, I talk about that in my blog, "Crafting Our History."
But this blog isn't about that per se, it's really about how I saw and now see my worth. Russell Simmons Global Grind tweeted the other day, "All that we are is the result of what we thought."
It's so true, sex was what I knew and was taught and it was everything to me in a relationship. Now, here I am 23 years with this infection that people saw as a modern-day curse. I didn't know how my boyfriend at the time would take this information. However, I found some comfort in the fact that he was a minister in seminary at the time. I figured if he didn't want to date anymore, at least he would serve as support in some way. He was a minister in seminary, so I knew that I could count on him for support, so I thought.
I remember the night I told him as if it happened this morning. The same evening that I learned I had HIV, I waited with nervous energy for him. Within minutes of his arrival I told him. We stood in the middle of my living room. I didn't even give him time to sit down. I had to let it out.
We need to talk I said. He gave me the easy smile and I felt reassured already. "I donated blood and the Red Cross sent me this letter." I paused and that got his attention. He stopped in his tracks. "What's wrong baby?" he asked. "I have HIV." He froze. "What?" he asked. "I have HIV," I repeated." It started to sink in. "They told me I have HIV." I repeated, "They told me that I have HIV." He stood there frozen almost as if in time. I was to afraid to say another word. He spoke up, "Are you for real?" "Yes," and I grabbed this piece of paper with the number to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where they had referred me. "I'm sure you're not infected because we used condoms," I added as I handed him the piece of paper.
He snatched the paper out of my hand, picked up his laundry that I had done that was sitting by the door. He paused for a second, looked me in the face and said, "You Bitch," and walked out my door. That was the last time I saw or spoke to him. The doctor at NIH confirmed that he was not infected.
I was left to deal with HIV on my own. It was a scary time for me. At the center of my agony was my dating life. Of course I was concerned with what people thought of me. This was the an ugly area in the history of AIDS in the United States. Cosmopolitan magazine had declared that women with "healthy vaginas" couldn't get HIV. Did that make my vagina unhealthy from day one? How does one navigate life when everything you thought about yourself changes?
Then over time I learned that men still wanted to date me and, yes, have sex with me. This only served to make me sicker. I thought that I was one bad BITCHHHH! I could get a man with HIV/AIDS and I knew women who couldn't get a man to save their life.
It was crazy. Here I am, this wonderful woman with so much to offer not just a man, but the world and all I could think about was would he want what was between my legs. It was the ultimate validation.
As time went on, I began to feel lost ... Like I was missing ... Yes that's it, I was missing. I had given so much value to one thing, I lost the rest of me. I started to not like the parts that were adjoined to me and that took me searching for something I could like, something I could be proud of. Be clear, not what others were proud of. By many standards I had arrived; the covers of magazines, Emmy award, designer clothes, the Oprah show, it couldn't get any better.
But I felt lost and I started to not like myself. I didn't like the me when the camera lights were turned off and the St. John was in the closet. I remember after fucking one day I felt this emptiness. It was all in my spirit.
As me and that accomplished young thang were riding down on the elevator it hit me. I needed to find me. He sensed something and asked, "Is everything okay?" "No," I said. He reached over and grabbed me and asked, "Is there anything I can do?" I looked up into that rich dark brown chocolate face of his and said, "No, but there's something I can do."
That day well over 10 years ago, was the beginning of my journey of self-actualization. It took years and a lot of hard work to get to this place where I'm at now. It even meant a lot of lonely nights. I understood that it wasn't enough to know better ... I had to apply it to my life. At the center of the madness was the little girl who had been violated. The little girl who had been taught that sex was love by example. I had to cry for her, the little lost girl and the lost of her innocence in order to move beyond the woman that she had become to the women I was intended to be.
Today I understand my worth. I understand that my vagina is only a part of the whole and to place value above one is to diminish the other. I will never go back to that place, not for ANYONE! My wholeness is the cornerstone of my life.
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Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks
Rae Lewis-Thornton is an Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist who rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has lived with HIV for 27 years and AIDS for 19. Rae travels the country speaking and challenging stereotypes and myths about HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Church History. Rae has been featured on Nightline, Dateline NBC, BET and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless magazines and newspapers, including Emerge, Glamour, O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Jet, Ebony, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few. She earned the coveted Emmy Award for a first-person series on living With AIDS for Chicago's CBS News.
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